Praying before the communion at Megara signed and dated 'Ralli 90' (lower right) oil on canvas 60.4 x 93.4 cm.
Provenance: Mrs Emily Austin Sandord, London. Christie's London, Sale of 21 June 1991, Lot 102. Sotheby's London sale of 16 November 2004, Lot 29 from which it was acquired by the present owner.
Exhibited: Paris, Salon de 1890, no 1992 (with title: La Prière avant la communion à Megara).
Literature: Maria Katsanaki, Thèodore Ralli, DEA, Université Paris I, Panthéon-Sorbonne, 1996.
A museum-worthy masterpiece selected by Ralli to represent him at the Paris Salon of 1890, this exquisite large-scale work of superb craftsmanship and flawless taste, is at once an expression of the beauty of holiness and the holiness of beauty. The perfection of the atmospheric envelopment, the complete unity of the impression and the wonderful passages of sombre yet subtle colour are among the great excellences of this admirable vignette of rural piety that manages to capture the scenes visual attractiveness, while conveying a genuine sense of religiosity and pensive tenderness.
In a sparse setting of outmost simplicity and ascetic devotion, with only two pieces of austere furniture and just a handful of objects, five softly illuminated female figures are engaged in family prayer. The religious sentiment is heightened by the austerity of the wooden chair, which looks more like a church pew, and the bottle on the fireplaces ledge, which evokes ceremonial olive oil offerings. Bathed in a subdued light, this intimate scene emanates a sense of relaxed meditation; a silent spiritual experience captured in a moment of absorbed thought and conveyed without the kind of frivolous piety that characterises many western motifs of Christian worship. In the hush that pervades the room, the female subjects, representing the four stages in a womans life -as child, young maiden, mother and grandmother, are discreetly overseen as if any interruption of this private, domestic reverence would jeopardise the harmony of the whole. The young girl, however, in a barely noticeable act of childish mischief, acknowledges the viewer, establishing a subtle connection with the outside world and demonstrating Rallis genius as a genre painter.
Focusing on ethnographic details, the painter demonstrates great facility in the faithful depiction of his subjects, endowing them with a monumental quality. Humility, veneration and emotion, which no distraction seems able to dispel, endow the figures with a solemn grandeur. Rallis art is best represented in his prayer scenes in which idealised figures immersed in a spiritual ambiance convey a feeling of piety and religiosity.1 (compare Praying in a Greek church, Mount Parnassus, auctioned by Bonhams, Greek Sale, 13.12.2007). Moreover, the beautiful countenance of the standing figures, especially the one in the centre which is captured in sharp profile and modelled by strong contrasts of light and shadow, have a sculptural immobility, recalling the timeless, idealised beauty of ancient Greek statues. Venturing towards the archetypal and collective, the young Greek kore transcend their individual specificity to take on a symbolic quality, echoing the words of Max Friedländer: The prayer scene painter eliminates the specific as something low, incongruous, incidental and faulty to honour the divine and holy with beauty.2
In his astonishing virtuosity, skilful use of subtle chiaroscuro and painstaking attention to detail (note the delicate rendering of the flower motif on the central womans blouse, the flickering candle flames and the glowing firewood) Ralli follows on the footsteps of his great teacher Jean-Léon Gérôme, while showing an appreciation for the achievements of 17th century Dutch realists, mainly in the organization and handling of pictorial space. Relying on balanced composition, harmony of colour values, tonal effect, solidity of form and an entirely personal spirit of discreet elegance that permeates the whole painting, Ralli achieves unity and fuses this rural scene into a refined and seductive work of art.
Ralli travelled extensively in Greece, painting mainly female figures in secular or religious settings. According to an 1876 newspaper article, Ralli had returned to Greece from Paris and visited the towns of Megara, Thebes and Arachova, along with other parts of mainland Greece faithfully recording the countenance and traditional costumes of the Greeks.3 As noted by Athens National Gallery curator M. Katsanaki, who did her graduate work on Ralli, the painter showed a keen predilection for Greek themes drawn from the rural-folk and religious life, which in his finest moments he rendered with a pensive and poetic disposition, avoiding quaint sentimentality by remaining closely in touch with the Greek people and culture.4
When exhibited in fin-de-siecle Paris, this characteristically Greek subject of silent peasant piety, evoking a noble sentiment of holy respect and promoting inner calm and peace, should have undoubtedly conveyed to the urbane and increasingly secularised audience of the French Salon a sense of nostalgic desire or even envy for more stable times, for an age-old, uncorrupted world still capable of firm religious belief and pure spiritual feeling. Renouncing modernitys transient, fragmentary experience, Ralli offered sophisticated Parisians solace and permanence with an anthropologists view of the endurance of archaic simplicity in the most remote provinces of Europe, where Christian faith remained unchallenged.
The theme of spectator Christianity,5 in which the viewer discreetly observes rather than participates in a religious ritual, is deeply ingrained in 19th century European art, the most potent images being Gauguins depictions of Breton peasant women worshipping before crudely carved crucifixes. However, in Praying before the communion, Megara, the three women perform their religious duties more as part of a devout domestic routine than in a display of spiritual trance. Their facial expression and overall attitude is that of quiet meditation, and only the seated figure, perhaps in light of the nearing end, with its slightly contorted facial characteristics and tight grasp of the chairs arm betrays some emotion stirred by the reciting of the sacred text.
Mastering a style of quiet restraint, the artist, out of plain, homespun material has made a great picture which has the appealing simplicity and genuineness of the domestic realm portrayed by 17th century Dutch old masters. Moreover, instead of offering a mere spectacle to be passively looked upon, he ingeniously invites the viewer to participate and emotionally engage in the family scene, drawn into the composition by the little girls direct eye contact and welcoming expression. Here, Ralli seems to concentrate upon the virtues of the contemplative, moral life rather than upon the veneration of a particular religion or dogma, underlying the universality of the religious experience.
Recognised as a prominent exponent of official salon painting, Ralli participated in many exhibitions in Paris and in 1901 was awarded the Medal of the Legion of Honour by the French Government. He also showed regularly in Athens and his work was admired by critics and collectors alike. In one of the most comprehensive essays written on the painter, Professor C. Christou notes that Ralli was one of those artists who consistently managed to sell their work even before they were completely dry, a fact that explains why the National Gallery in Athens has such a limited collection of his work.6Praying before the communion, Megara is exactly that; a museum quality piece, a tour de force of 19th century genre that reveals Rallis genius in its uniqueness, confirming his position as one of the great masters of Greek art.
1. M. Papanikolaou, Greek Genre Painting of the Nineteenth Century [in Greek], Thessaloniki, 1978, pp. 8-9. See also T. Thomopoulos, 'Theodoros Rallis' [in Greek], Panathinea, vol.3, 1901-1902, p. 17, F. Yoffylis, History of Modern Greek Art [in Greek], vol.1, To Elliniko Vivlio publ., Athens 1962, p. 228 and A. Ioannou, Greek Painting, Melissa publ., Athens 1974, p. 243. 2. M. Friedländer, Uber die Malerei, Munchen 1963, p. 161. See also Papanikolaou, p. 114. 3. As cited in Papanikolaou, pp. 56-57. 4. M. Ka(tsanaki) in Dictionary of Greek Artists [in Greek], vol. 4, Athens 1999, p. 86. 5. Compare A. Legros, The Calvary, 1874 (Musée dOrsay, Paris). See R. Rosenblum, Paintings in the Musée dOrsay, Stewart, Tabori & Chang, New York, 1989, pp. 132-133. 6. C. Christou, Greek Painting 1832-1922 [in Greek], National Bank of Greece, Athens 1993, p. 78.